Microsoft is to provide its cloud-based productivity suite, Office 365 for Education, to all educational institutions in South Africa for free to support learning, teaching and administration of education in South Africa.

Office 365 for education is a cloud-based suite that includes online versions of the familiar Microsoft Office desktop applications, as well as Microsoft Exchange Online, Microsoft SharePoint Online and Microsoft Lync Online. This will give educators the tools to create learning opportunities across multiple devices, including mobile phones, by providing secure, anywhere access to email and calendars, Office Web Apps, instant messaging, conferencing, and file sharing.

Microsoft South Africa’s public sector director, Kabelo Makwane, says Office 365 for Education has the potential to connect more schools and learners to 21st century education opportunities and skills while supporting government’s vision of quality education. Office 365 for Education will be available to more than 25 000 schools in South Africa with an estimated 12,2 million learners.

“The cloud and online learning are key trends transforming education today, as schools face shrinking budgets and growing requirements. By offering the latest productivity and collaboration technology at no cost, we hope to help modernise teaching practices and prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow,” says Makwane.

Office 365 for education is available to all academic institutions with a valid education domain, and replaces Microsoft’s previous Live@Edu offering.

Makwane says that as part of its broader focus on education in South Africa, Microsoft’s long-standing initiative, Partners in Learning programme, helps teachers use technology in the classroom to improve teaching and learning outcomes. The programme has reached more than 30 000 teachers and 3 million learners to date.

Some of the potential benefits of Office 365 for education include:

* Letting students engage in ad-hoc instant messaging or video chats to collaborate on class projects in real time, regardless of where they are working or on what device. They can create documents with Office Web Apps that provide the same features as the desktop version of Microsoft Office, share class notes by synchronising OneNote notebooks, and create digital portfolios, using only a browser.

* Teachers can share e-Libraries and workbooks, create curriculum resources, record lessons and publish them online in class sites in the cloud where students are able to view, open, produce, edit and share their homework. Office 365 provides new ways to extend classroom teaching time and distance learning, tutor students online, and whiteboard ideas.

* School IT departments can save money and free up critical time by counting on Microsoft to manage routine tasks such as applying server updates and software upgrades. With the influx of digital content, data centre demands are lessened and with 25GB mailboxes, people won’t be forced to purge files.

Education institutions currently using the Microsoft Live@Edu platform will be upgraded to Office 365 for Education.